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The German Model 1879 Revolver

The German Model 1879 Revolver

The Model 1879 Deutsche Armeerevolver was the first standard, cartridge-firing handgun adopted by the German army. It was a single-action design in which spent cartridge cases were ejected with a rod carried separately, and it featured a distinctive muzzle ring that protected the muzzle from damage.

In 1871, the Prussian army was the top dog among European military powers. In the previous seven years, it had fought and won wars against Denmark (1864), the Austro-Hungarian Empire (1866), and France (1870-71). Her victories were due in great part to the Preußische-Zündnadel-Gewehre M.41 and M.62, also known as the Dreyse Needle Rifle, helped in no small part by Prussian planning, tactics, efficiency, and morale. No sooner had victory over France been achieved than Germany adopted a state-of-the-art rifle, Paul Mauser's Infanterie-Gewehr M.71.

But the German army clung to the traditions of the arme blanc for its mounted units, of whom, most were equipped with swords and lances. In the German army, handguns were issued sparingly to enlisted personnel, and officers desiring a weapon other than their saber usually purchased whatever struck their fancy. Prussian efficiency was affronted by such confusion, and the Gewehr-Prufungs Kommission (the Spandau arsenal rifle testing commission, or GPK) was ordered to find or design a suitable revolver.

Unlike American and British contemporaries who viewed the handgun as a true fighting weapon, European officers tended to view it as a badge of rank or authority, or in a worst-case scenario, as a last-ditch weapon that would most likely only be used to fire one or two desperate shots. The revolver developed by the GPK attempted to combine all of these concepts.

By 1879, the GPK presented its creation for approval. At first glance, one could be forgiven for thinking that the Modell 1879 Deutsche Armeerevolver is a big handgun because it is a big handgun. As a comparison, while it weighed approximately the same, it was more than an inch longer than a Colt Single Action Army revolver and 21/2 inches longer than a Webley Mark IV. But to the Germanic mind, the Model 1879 possessed the two primary characteristics of a military weapon: simplicity and ruggedness.

Model 1879 revolvers were built around a frame that included a hexagonal extension with a generously deep socket into which the barrel was screwed. The barrel featured a muzzle ring called mundungswulst, or "fat mouth," which protected the crown from damage.

The solid frame included the grip strap with an integral butt cap that was fitted with a large lanyard ring. A single-action (SA) lockwork mechanism of extremely simple design and rugged construction were used. The design featured a heavy hammer and a strong mainspring guaranteed to detonate even the most recalcitrant primer. A removable sideplate permitted access to the lockwork for cleaning and repair.

The 10.6mm scharfe Revolver-Patrone cartridge used a 25mm-long case loaded with 20 grains of blackpowder and a 262-grain lead, roundnose bullet. (Photo courtesy of Lou Behling)

The recessed chamber mouths and the chambers were numbered from 1 to 6. A loading gate on the right side of the frame opened downward to allow insertion or ejection of cartridges. To remove the cylinder, a catch on the left-hand side of the frame was rotated down 90 degrees, the cylinder pin was withdrawn, the loading gate was opened, and the cylinder was removed.

Model 1879 revolvers are unique in that they were one of the few military wheelguns to feature an external safety lever. While such an appendage might at first seem superfluous, it makes some sense. The Model 1879 did not feature any type of hammer rebound mechanism, and the only safe ways to carry such a revolver loaded was to keep the hammer down on an empty chamber, keep the hammer on halfcock, or position the nose of the hammer in shallow notches between the chambers. The first reduced cartridge capacity, while the second and third were problematic from a safety viewpoint.

But with the Model 1879, the hammer was placed on halfcock, and the revolver was loaded with six rounds. Then, the safety lever was rotated downward, interposing a solid steel shaft behind the hammer that prevented backward movement while the heavy-duty sear in the halfcock notch prevented forward movement. Flipping the safety lever up aligned a notch in the shaft with the back of the hammer and permitted it to be drawn to fullcock position. Thus, a fully loaded revolver could be carried in complete safety yet could be gotten into action fairly quickly.

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1879 Deutsche Armeerevolver:

Cylinder capacity:Six rounds
Caliber:10.6mm scharfe Revolver-Patrone
Barrel length:7.2 inches
Sights: Inverted V blade front; V notch rear
Grip material: Smooth walnut
Overall length:13.4 in.
Weight, empty:2.5 lbs.

The Model 1879 did not have an ejector system. While some have stated that unloading was by removing the cylinder from the frame and using the cylinder pin to punch out the spent cases, according to German authority Heinrich Harder, a separate ejector rod was carried by means of a strap attached to the ammunition pouch.

The Model 1879 was chambered for the 10.6mm scharfe Revolver-Patrone M.79, which was a rimmed, straight-walled case 25mm long loaded with 20 grains of blackpowder and a 262-grain lead bullet. Muzzle velocity was approximately 700 fps.

Production of the Model 1879 revolver was contracted out to the commercial firms of V.C. Schilling & Cie, Spangenburg & Sauer, C.G. Haenel & Cie, F. von Dreyse, and Gebruder Mauser & Cie, and the government arsenal at Erfurt also produced a small number.

The German armed forces now had a standard revolver, but issue was only approved to buglers, signalers, dispatch riders, military gendarmes, artillery crews, and transport drivers. The average cavalry trooper continued to get by with a sword, lance, and carbine.

The Model 1879 was one of the few military revolvers ever fitted with a safety lever. This close-up of the left side of the frame shows the safety lever in the safe position.

After the Model 1879 had been in service for several years, complaints were voiced about the excessive size and weight of the service sidearm. After serious consideration, the GPK redesigned it. The result was the Modell 1883 Deutsche Armeerevolver.

The Model 1883 differed in several ways. The retention system for the cylinder pin was changed from a rotating latch to a spring-loaded catch that permitted the grip frame to be more compact, and the barrel was shortened to 4.25 inches, which reduced weight to 2.02 pounds.

The official designation of the Model 1883 has been the subject of much conjecture. Some sources refer to the Model 1879 as the Trooper's Model and the Model 1883 as the Officer's Model or Infantry Model. I have been unable to find any evidence that rank or branch of service had anything to do with which revolvers were issued to which personnel. According to Chamberlain, to avoid confusion, German collectors refer to the Model 1879 as the Langer Lauf (Long Barrel) and the Model 1883 as the Kurzer Lauf (Short Barrel).

The Model 1879 and Model 1883 revolvers were standard issue with the German army, navy, and colonial gendarmes and first saw service in the Arabist Revolt in 1888, then in the Maji-Maji Rebellion in 1905 in German East Africa, as well as in the Herero Revolt of 1903-'08 in German South-West Africa. In addition, they were carried by German troops taking part in the suppression of the Boxer Rebellion in China (1900-'01). While the navy replaced them with the Parabellum (Luger) pistol in 1904 as did the army in 1908, many remained in service after those dates. In keeping with the caste system existent in most European armies, officers normally received the newer semiautomatic pistols, while those NCOs and enlisted personnel requiring a handgun were often issued the older revolvers.

During World War I, the German army experienced shortages of weapons and numbers of Model 1879 and Model 1883 revolvers were taken out of store and issued to rear echelon, support, reserve, and noncombatant units. Others saw service with the various political militias and the Freikorps in the postwar civil disturbances that racked Germany. A few surfaced in the hands of the Volkssturm in the waning days of World War II.

Shooting The Model 1879
My friend James Flowers was kind enough to loan me a Modell 1879 Armeerevolver manufactured by Gebruder Mauser in 1880. Mechanically, it was in excellent condition with about 80 percent of the blue finish. While there was some surface pitting, the bore and chambers were bright and clean, and the cylinder locked up tightly. All of the major components, including most of the screws and smaller parts, were stamped with the last two digits of the serial number.

The long, thin barrel made it decidedly butt-heavy, and the grips proved to be awkward and permitted the revolver to move around in my hand under recoil. Cocking the hammer indicated the strength of the springs used in its construction, and while the trigger pull was short and crisp, it had a heavy letoff.

True to its time period, the sights left much to be desired, and I knew they were going to sorely test my vision.

The improved Model 1883 revolver had a reshaped grip and frame, a shorter barrel, and a simplified retaining catch for the cylinder pin.

Ammunition was supplied by 2nd Amendment Research & Development. The firm's 10.6mm German revolver cartridges were made from trimmed .44 Magnum cases loaded with .429-caliber, flatnose, lead bullets weighing 250 grains atop a modest charge of Bullseye powder. Running five rounds across my chronograph gave an average velocity of 621 fps.

This Teutonic wheelgun was fired for accuracy from a benchrest at 15 yards, and while its heavy-duty springs ensured cartridge ignition, I found it almost impossible to see the sights. The hard-to-see sights and a trigger pull from hell combined to produce poor, six-shot groups; the smallest measured exactly 5 inches.

After setting up a USPSA target at 7 yards, I sent 12 rounds downrange, firing the revolver in the approved 19th-century manner: one-handed, unsupported. Thanks to its substantial weight, recoil was moderate, but the poorly shaped grips required that I adjust my grip after each shot and before I could cock the hammer to fire the next round. To my surprise, except for one round that somehow found itself up in the target's head, most of the shots ended up in the A and C zones of the target.

Examining and test-firing the Modell 1879 Deutsche Armeerevolver led me to conclude that while there can be no denying its simplicity and durability, these characteristics were achieved at the cost of ergonomics, rapidity of fire, and speed of reloading. The only positive thing I can say about the Model 1879 is that after you fired six shots, it would have made one hell of a club!

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